Dickens’ London study visit

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The 16th century house on Portsmouth Street in central London which some sources say is the original Old Curiosity Shop
The 16th century house on Portsmouth Street in central London which some sources say is the original Old Curiosity Shop. Image by OCA photography student Siegfried Ip.

A walk by the River Thames in the morning down the alleyways and round the corners that inspired the novels of the Victorian writer Charles Dickens.  An afternoon getting to know the house in Bloomsbury that was the first marital home he shared with his wife and mother of his ten children, Catherine Hogarth.

We expected sunshine, and we expected things to have changed a great deal since the author of Sketches by Boz strode the capital’s streets walking his customary 15 miles a day.  In fact, the rain fell steadily throughout the morning.  We needed the stout shoes and waterproofs that London Walks had advised us to bring.  We learnt that some things in London haven’t changed a jot between Dickens’ time and ours. Horse-drawn traffic in the 1850s moved at 12 miles an hour. In 2013, motor vehicles move at exactly the same speed.

Our guide Paul Tzara led us down the narrow lanes of the Middle and Inner Temples, describing how they would have been in Dickens’ day, before the Thames was embanked in the 1850s by Joseph Bazalgette. The rank water of the river bore cholera to the population of the growing city, whose 1.5 million mass at the beginning of the century had grown to five million by its end.

We saw houses here that feature in the novels, including Edward Chester’s in Barnaby Rudge, who lodges in Inner Temple.  Standing next to the Elizabethan Middle Temple Hall, where Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was first performed on 2 February 1602, we looked across the river to Southwark.  In the 16th and 17th centuries, it was outside the boundaries of the City of London and the haunt of law students and other respectable citizens looking for theatres and brothels.

At the age of 12, Charles Dickens’ was sent to work 12 hours a day, six days a weeks, putting labels on tins in a blacking factory. Our walk introduced us to the site of the original factory, and the site it moved to later on during Dickens’ time there.  His father, who thought of himself as a man of taste, and whose expenditure always exceeded his income, needed the money his younger son could bring in.

Charles Dickens’ nature was infiltrated by grief and humiliation by the events of his childhood.  It marked his fiction.  His father appears in the guise of the happy-go-lucky character of Mr Micawber in David Copperfield, who famously sums up the significance of money to the human condition: ‘Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.’

A lighter side of the younger Dickens flourished when he left  the manual labours of the blacking factory to become a clerk in Gray’s Inn. He didn’t like the work, but he enjoyed leaning out of the window and blowing cherry stones at the hats of ladies walking beneath.

Hearing the word ‘Dickensian’ spoken out loud gave us pause in our ramblings.  We realised the adjective had two quite distinct meanings. ‘A Dickensian Christmas’, such as that described in A Christmas Carol, is one of abundance and good humour.  The phrase ‘Dickensian conditions’ however, speaks of human misery and the trampling of the already downtrodden.

Throughout his adult life, Dickens’ visited the morgue and the prison in whatever city he found himself, seeing himself as a champion of the oppressed.  At the point when London had a population of 2.5 million, 50,000 to 60,000 women were working as prostitutes. Many times, we learnt, he was encouraged to stand for election as a Member of Parliament. He refused, saying that he could change conditions for the poor far more effectively as a writer than as a politician. In our own times of disillusionment with politics, are there people choosing their path in life who think as Dickens did?

What of the house at 48 Doughty Street? A shadow of the writer’s outline, artfully placed on the staircase from the ground floor to the first floor brought home to us just how small in stature Charles Dickens was, his slight, frail figure the legacy of privations early in his life.  This glimpse of him reminded us that he was anything but robust, making all the more remarkable his incessant walking, campaigning, theatre-going, public reading, entertaining – and prolific writing.

5 Comments

  1. Maria 5 June 2013 at 4:29 pm

    ‘Please, Sir…I want some more’. The Charles Dickens’ London study tour was whimsical, informative and inspiring! Elizabeth was great in keeping us together, splashing through puddles, dashing in the rain, hopping on the tube, and sparking conversation during a pub-lunch break. She was lovely. Our guide Paul had a clear love for telling what made Dickens tick. Dickens’ descriptive passion for food and drink came in the aftermath of starving in his youth. When notoriety arrived and money feathered his pockets, his appetite soared—but body weight never stuck; he walked an average of 15 miles daily and remained slim. We went past the Old Curiosity Shop—and in the 21st century a juxtaposition was on display: a quirky, aged building with a splintered small ‘duck-your-head’ door was hemmed by modern day street construction and workers on mobile phones. Winding down back alleyways, stepping into a yesteryear Georgian home steeped in artefacts—perhaps even with Dickens’ spirit lurking about, plopping fancy-dress newsboy caps upon our heads, and hovering over a polished desk that once felt Dickens’ scribbling of beloved characters-in-the-making, were but a handful of highlights. Ah…if only we’d had top hats to tip and been in petticoats, redingotes and high-button boots (sigh).

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  2. Catherine Foster 7 June 2013 at 1:20 pm

    I can’t remember enjoying myself so much whist simultaneously getting soaked. A very memorable day in excellent company. Maria has said it all.

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    1. Maria 7 June 2013 at 5:17 pm

      Thanks, Catherine! Yes, it surely was memorable and it was lovely to have met you and the other students. The pub-lunch food was not great…but the conversation was! Wishing you all the best with your creative endeavours.

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  3. Elizabeth Underwood 10 June 2013 at 9:16 am

    But for the rain, we would have had the chance to sit down and talk over a sandwich about what we had seen and learnt on our walk. The English weather should perhaps be added to the list of things that haven’t changed since Dickens’ time. I very much enjoyed the time I spent with the lively group of students who joined me on this visit and thank you for being energetic contributors.

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  4. Mirjam 10 June 2013 at 11:42 am

    I much appreciated being welcome to this study visit even though I study photography, not creative writing. Visiting places Dickens used to frequent was instructive and inspired me to go back to reading about his life after the visit….. my challenge being in the morning to take some photographs while listening to Paul the guide, (a fascinating walking mine of information on Dickens) and trying not to land in any puddles or get run over while crossing the streets looking to the wrong side, as I had arrived in England only the day before…. OCA study visits are great, as they make me feel better connected to the institution I otherwise experience as very “distant” indeed, studying from Switzerland. Meeting other students and experiencing learning on different levels – a stimulating experience. Special thanks to Elizabeth for organising the visit and cheerfully leading our little group.

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